I believe it’s either the Chinese or Japanese language where the same character means both crisis and opportunity. This interesting concept has often proved true in history, as well as in my personal life. And so it is in here. We are awoken at 8 in the morning by the guard telling us it is time for the annual power wash cleaning of the inside of the dorm. A wave of uneasiness begins to spread as he tells us the procedure. A large group of inmates can be similar to a herd of buffalo—easy to spook and just as dangerous when stampeding. Any change in the normal program, such as having the TV turned off, will lead to rising tensions. Enough time and a few more variations from the norm and—BOOM! Stampede. Sometimes a fight or two will pop off.
- ARTWORK BY NEAL BRETON
It’s a little early in the morning, so everyone is kinda groggy as the officer tells us that we are to gather all of our belongings—including books, mattresses, and any commissary food—and head out to the yard. We even have to take out all the tables and chairs from the day room. Anything left inside is going to get wet.
“You guys are probably going to be outside for most of the day, and we will feed you lunch out there. Just think of it like a picnic day. Like camping in the backyard.”
As we start hustling things out the door and lining our mats up along the walls, it becomes clear that it is more like a refugee camp, a lawless Mad Max world where survival is the only rule. I wonder how many will die today. Who will we eat first if the food runs out? The outside yard area is roughly the same shape as the dorm, but a little smaller, without the bunk area at the long end. Two-story-tall cinderblock walls enclose a triangular-shaped, flat, concrete ground. The top is completely enclosed by a metal gate to discourage any escape attempts, as well as make sure the handball doesn’t bounce out. In the small end of the pie slice is a door to the guards’ area, and at the farthest corner from that, sharing a wall with the dorm, is a small metal toilet with a short section of wall jutting out to offer a measure of privacy. A metal sink that only bubbles out a flaccid stream of water is on the other side of it.
In the third corner, opposite the shitter, I see Buddy setting down his mattress, so I head over that way. I put mine next to his and run back inside to grab my books and clear out my drawer. (Each bunk has two slide-out drawers slung underneath.) I scramble my way around people rolling out the heavy, round tables and lumping stacks of chairs into the yard. I’m able to fit all my soups, toiletries, a couple candy bars, and my books (my sister bought me some cool Hunter S. Thompson novels. Thanks sis! Love you!) into one large brown paper bag and I look around in scavenger mode at my surroundings. Trash, rolls of T.P., and unwanted book pieces are scattered all around the bunks, so I make a quick trip through, picking up an extra paper bag and a couple bars of cheap soap that are left behind.
As the last of the refugees haul their mats out the door, I notice the “green spray” bottle still on the sink counter in the day room. The one spray bottle in the dorm is filled with a green mixture that is supposed to kill germs. So we use it to spray down toilets before we sit on them or showers after someone has taken way too long in there … if you know what I mean. I grab it and slip it into the small paper bag I acquired recently and, thinking quickly, pick up a full roll of T.P. from the bathroom. Everyone else is so worried about their own belongings that they forget these basic necessities. I have just cornered the hygiene market. Because it never gets cleaned, the outside toilet is filthy, and we refer to it as the “Hep C” toilet. But if we are going to be outside all day, I know some people are going to have to sit on it sooner or later, and when they do, they are going to need the green spray. I figure supplies are power at this point.
I also notice that without assigned bunks, everyone is able to group together how we want for the first time. The paisas take up the entire length of both the empty walls with my corner directly in the center. General, a very large Mexican, is the self-appointed translator and ambassador to little Mexico. He stakes out a place right near the sink, surrounded by paisas, but also right next to the white boys who have congregated in that corner for the shade the overhanging roof offers. His strategic location next to the only water source as well as his sway with the “brown army” will make him an invaluable ally.
In addition to myself and Buddy, our crew consists of Pup the rapper, and two reformed upper tierers named Bananas and Jock. Bananas is a nutty young guy from Santa Margarita who is known mostly for his zany antics such as roaring like a crazed gorilla and shaking his bunk. Like all the time. I think these little freak-outs help him get out some of his pent-up energy. I guess some people work out, some people freak out. Jock, a wrestler and football player from Los Osos, is definitely the former. He has secured one of the overflow sleeping troughs called “boats.” These hard-plastic toboggans are designed to fit one mattress and are put on the floor when all the rectangular bunks are full. We position it defensively on the outer edge of our claim. I grab a couple small stacks of chairs and ring them around our mattress as a wall. Now our territory is really taking shape.
Feeling inspired, and realizing that we will be at the mercy of the scorching sun soon, I suggest we use some of our blankets to make a tent. I see Buddy’s face light up at the idea, and so we begin construction. By this time, everyone else in the yard has settled into position on their mats, and those who have not gone directly back to sleep are watching us with looks ranging from curiosity to non-understanding fear. I roll one of the big tables over to secure our border area as Jock and Pup tie together and drape blankets over the stacks of strategically placed chairs. Buddy sticks to his typical managerial role. A couple of the nearby paisas who speak absolutely no English look confused by our fabrication and scoot their beds a few feet farther away. In just a few minutes, we have erected our very own tent city.
As we get comfortable in our area, I pull out my supplies and arrange them under a chair next to my bed. Using toothpaste as glue, I even hang up some pictures my ex-girlfriend sent me. (Thanks Tracy! You rock!) A big color photo of Aaron Rodgers (the quarterback for the Packers) from the newspaper completes the decor on the inside of our chairs. With our comfy home set up, we all drift off to sleep. But what kind of condition will we find the refugee camp in when we awake? Will we be able to maintain peace and defend our turf? How long will we be stranded out here? These questions are soon to be addressed … .
Contributor Roman Navarro writes about life in San Luis Obispo County Jail. He can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.